Politics & Policy

Walrus Beach Party

(Outdoorsman/Dreamstime)
A far-from-unusual gathering in Alaska brings out the usual doomsayers.

It is not often that walruses turns heads, but Arctic environmentalists are taking note of the blubbery beasts, more than 35,000 of which have gathered on a beach in northern Alaska. It is not uncommon for walruses to plop themselves on ice or shore to rest — a practice called “hauling out” — and gatherings of thousands have been spotted before. But scientists say that massive assemblies in Alaska were unusual before 2007, when the annual decrease in Arctic Sea ice accelerated. According to NASA, “the Arctic Ocean has lost about 13 percent of its sea ice per decade since the late 1970s.”

So begins the walrus apocalypse.

“Walrus Join Crowd of Species Facing Climate Ultimatum,” declared NBC News. The Los Angeles Times: “35,000 Walruses Congregate on Alaska Shore, Face Dangers as Sea Ice Dwindles.” Margaret Williams, managing director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic program, warned:

The walruses are telling us what the polar bears have told us and what many indigenous people have told us in the high Arctic, and that is that the Arctic environment is changing extremely rapidly and it is time for the rest of the world to take notice and also to take action to address the root causes of climate change.

Yet from Seychelles snails to drowning polar bears, the thesis that climate change is threatening the populations of mankind’s beloved fauna has run into obstacles — namely, that said animals are alive and well. The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the walrus as a “data deficient” species when it comes to calculating population, but after historic lows in the 1950s, caused largely by hunting, scientists generally estimate a global walrus population upwards of 200,000 — double what it was in the 1950s. By the 1980s the population had rebounded to historic highs. National Geographic reported in 2007 that scientists occasionally encounter individual herds of 100,000.

And 2007 did not mark the first mass haulout. Dr. Susan J. Crockford, a zoologist and adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, points at her blog Polar Bear Science to mass haulouts observed in the 1970s. According to a 1980 paper by Francis Fay and Brendan Kelly, who were studying walrus mortality, in autumn 1978 “a conservative estimate” suggests that 35,000 walruses hauled out at St. Lawrence Island, a few hundred miles south of this year’s haulout at Point Lay, Alaska. Six years earlier, 36,000 hauled out at Wrangell Island, a few hundred miles west of Point Lay. Maps of sea ice from those years show that ice was available near Wrangell Island, but the walruses chose to haul out on land, while in 1978 thousands swam away from nearby sea ice to reach St. Lawrence Island.

The science, as usual, is far from settled. But an enormous population doing what walruses have been observed doing for a half-century hardly suggests a species on the verge. Still, suppose that the doomsayers are correct: Sea ice is melting at unprecedented rates, and the walrus population, overburdened by lengthier commutes, faces cataclysmic devastation.

So what?

“Can walruses adapt to a lack of sea ice?” Vox asked in a panic. If they can, great. If not, that’s survival-of-the-fittest for you.

It is ironic that the same people who, on the subject of planetary temperatures, are data-driven empiricists beholden to capital-S Science alone, are apparently convinced that Mother Nature is so shortsighted as not to work out some sort of scheme for regulating her own equilibrium. Given rapid-enough changes in the Arctic environment, there will be disruptions, to the food chain and the rest. But through ice ages and super droughts and other long-term climate mayhem, the natural world has preserved its homeostasis. Some flora and fauna do not make it, but the system as a whole remains in balance. So it has been for 4.5 billion years.

Until conservationists came along, that is, marrying climate-change alarmism to a frantic devotion to select species of wildlife. The consequence is a demand for radical action — for the arch-conservative purpose of maintaining at all costs this lizard or that bird or a blubbery Arctic pinniped.

None of which is to say that these species should not be beloved or, whenever possible, protected. Odebenus rosmarus, with his Bill Taft mustachio and those tusks — dual yards of sheer dental spectacle — is a charismatic specimen, a wonderful indication of the abundance (and sense of humor) of the natural world. But perhaps, like the pygmy mammoth and the pig-footed bandicoot, he is destined to be a transient.

And, of course, perhaps not. Perhaps thousands of years of survival indicate that the walrus is not in dire need of Air Evac flights out of Point Lay.

But if, in the distant future, “I Am the Walrus” is rendered even more opaque, we can take comfort in the undying promise of evolution: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

After all, that’s what the science says. And who are we to argue with that?

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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